Archive for January, 2009

Friday, January 30th

January 30, 2009

“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” Luke 15:25-32

 

One more day to think about the church…

 

The elder son is feeling resentful.  He has been faithful for a long time.  He has been respectful and obedient and cognizant of his position in the family.  He’s shown up for work every day.  He’s done his share – no, since his little brother took half his father’s money and left, the elder brother has done MORE than his share.  No wonder he has felt used and unappreciated.

 

Who can blame him for getting angry when his irresponsible little brother comes gallivanting down the driveway like some long lost hero, arm and arm with his gullible father!  As if that weren’t enough, their father actually wants to celebrate the return of the son by throwing a party and sharing his gullibility and enabling of his little brother’s excesses with the neighbors!

 

Who can blame him?

 

Read the story and look closely at the words.  No one blames him.  No one condemns him for his resentment, his anger….his jealousy?  If the elder son feels pain in this story it is self-generated.  His father doesn’t condemn him for his childishness, he pleads with him to come back into the party and enjoy himself.  But the story ends with the elder brother pouting on the porch.

 

Who among us wants to be an elder brother? 

 

Church members who have long been part of the church, who haven’t strayed away, who have been faithful in worship and faithful in service and generous in giving – who among them wants to be an elder brother?

 

Pastors who have made significant sacrifices to serve the church, who have chosen the ministry over other more lucrative careers their college educations might have earned, who gave four years of their lives to earning a seminary degree, who have gone to the places they were sent to serve – who among them would want to be an elder brother?

 

The elder brother simply cannot understand the joy of the father at the return of his disappointment of a son.  No doubt, the elder son went about his daily duties on the farm the whole time the younger brother was gone with absolutely no idea how much his father hurt inside, longing for the return of the son who seemingly had rejected his love.  The elder son – not seeing the realities of either his brother or his father – was likewise blind to the personal cost he was paying for being blind even to himself.  None among us want to be that elder son.

 

So let’s not live as if we were he.  Let’s let go of the notion that the church is somehow “ours” and needs to be protected from the infringements “they” would lay upon us.  Let’s welcome the stranger with open arms, but only after doing absolutely everything we can to prepare for the stranger’s arrival, including anticipating their needs with programs that are helpful to people, designing worship that feels like a celebration rather than a funeral, and creating a culture reminiscent of the loving embrace of a Father who welcomes all of his broken, sinful, selfish children home.

 

Let us pray:  Thank you, gracious and loving God, for welcoming us home even though we have abused your gifts, have betrayed your name, and have gone our own ways time and time again.  Thank you for your forgiveness and your grace.  May that same grace which has come to us from you also flow through us to the others in our lives, that we be as gracious with them as you have been with us.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

 

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Thursday, January 29th

January 29, 2009

While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing, he said to his disciples, “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” But they did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying…An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest. But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, and said to them, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.” Luke 9:43-48

 

There are a lot of different ways to say it but the fact is, life in the kingdom of God is counter-intuitive.  Upside down.  It is no wonder that the disciples were often puzzled along the way.

 

Hearing the Boss say he was going to be betrayed, arrested, humiliated, crucified?  The world would call that failure.  No one in their right mind would aspire to such drastic downward mobility.

 

Listening to the One (whom they thought would right the wrongs of the world, maybe raise a mighty army to defeat the Romans, surely move into the Big House in Jerusalem and assume his position of Davidic leadership) lifting up a small child and then saying that greatness has something to do with leastness?  That doesn’t make any sense.  We would think greatness is about rubbing elbows with the rich, famous and powerful, not bouncing a child on your knee.  But Jesus turns everything around.

 

How do you follow someone like that?  One step at a time.  Hopefully in the right direction.

 

After the “big” conference at the beginning of the week, I’ll be spending today on retreat with a small group of pastors in their first three years of parish ministry. This retreat is part of an initiative that recognizes the value, and the difficulty, of excellent leadership in the church in the midst of the challenges we face today.  Together we will look again at how we look at things and how best to do what we are called to do.

 

Knowing that we follow one who was rejected means that we often must do battle with that inner urge we have to please people, to be liked, to settle for peace at all costs while mistrusting the possibility of peace beyond understanding. 

 

Realizing that greatness has something to do with least-ness means that our calling is to be attentive to the poor, the powerless, the rejected, the least and the lost.  Children are seldom the ones bending a pastor’s ear, telling him or her what they don’t like about this or that, about what they want done about this or that.  Children don’t pay the bills.  But Jesus lifted up a child and we need to be attentive to that.

 

Let us pray:  Gracious Lord, much has changed in 2000 years but so much remains the same – you still turn us inside out and upside down, you still rely on simple human beings to incarnate your love for the world, and it is still so hard to resist the allure of the easy way out.  Inspire us to excellence in all of the upside down ways that happens as we follow you day by day.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Wednesday, January 28th

January 28, 2009

Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.  Luke 6:12-16

 

“Disciple” means “student” or “learner” – “apostle” means “sent one” or “messenger.”  Out of all of his disciples (here Luke implies there were many more than twelve people following Jesus), Jesus chooses twelve to be the “sent out ones.”

 

Jesus didn’t choose them by random, drawing straws or tapping toes to silly rhymes.  He spent a significant period of time in prayer, in spiritual discernment.  Only then did he choose the twelve.  (And even at that, Judas Iscariot still made the cut.)

 

From the very beginning, in each of the gospels, Jesus immediately seeks to multiply his ministry.  From the very beginning, Jesus is preparing for the great hand-off that happens after Easter Sunday.  From the very beginning, Jesus selects some and sets them aside – not to honor them or give them some kind of special prestige – but sets them aside so that they would assume positions of leadership within the Christian movement.

 

All Christians, by virtue of their baptism into Christ, are “ministers,” are “ambassadors of Jesus” in the world.  No question about it.  The common shared ministry of the people of God, both lay and ordained, professional and amateur, paid and volunteer, is for the sake of the world.  But from the very beginning, some are set aside for the sake of the others.

 

Ask a pastor to tell you his or her story and you will hear as many different stories as people you ask.  None of us, at least none that I know, thinks of being a pastor as merely having a job that delivers a paycheck.  There is more to it than that to all of us.  A few of us can’t remember ever wanting to be anything else when they grew up other than a pastor.  But more of us would tell stories of grappling and wrestling and struggling with the calling – from the very first and perhaps all the way through.

 

Ordination required earning a four year college degree followed by an additional four years of study at a Lutheran seminary, one of those years spent working as an intern in full-time ministry for very little salary under the supervision of a pastor.  Continued service means continuing our education each year and all the along the way.  Ask any pastor – better yet, ask their spouses or their children – and you would discover that it is a demanding, complex, often frustrating and deeply rewarding calling.

 

And maybe that is the problem. Maybe all of the preparation, all of the education, all of the trappings of the office actually, at some level at least, gets in the way.  Maybe stepping into the traditional roles assigned to us in congregational life becomes the problem.  Because it has the potential to blind us to the purpose.

 

It is easy to lose sight of the simple idea that maybe God wants us to be doing what we do. That it is God’s idea that some are called and set aside and prepared to be sent to equip the rest. That maybe our life callings are as much about God as about us.

 

So it is that the 400 of us here gathered might say we are pastors of local congregations but the deeper reality is that we work for the Creator of the Universe, in partnership with those in our congregations, in carrying out God’s plan for restoring the broken, feeding the hungry, setting the oppressed free and making whole the fabric of the kingdom.

 

The problem isn’t that we think too large but that we think too small.

 

Let us pray:  Dear Lord, expand our vision.  Help us see our calling as your people in all of its depth and power and possibilities.  Help us see ourselves as sent into the world, literally bearing your presence and love.  Help us see our hands and legs and arms and voices as yours, incarnated for the good and the restoration of the world.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Tuesday, January 27th

January 27, 2009

One Sabbath while Jesus was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?” Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”  On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” He got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” After looking around at all of them, he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.  Luke 6:1-11

 

What do you think of when you hear the word “Sabbath”?  Maybe you think of rest, the story of God taking a day off after the six days of vacation.  Maybe you think of worship, the Sabbath day being a day set aside to free us for worship.  What you probably don’t associate with “Sabbath” are “rules and regulations.”  At least consciously that is not where your mind goes.

 

Luke puts two Sabbath stories together in the above verses.  Both times, Jesus appears to be breaking the rules.

 

He allows his disciples to glean grain as they walk along on a Sabbath day. Then he heals a man with a withered hand.  Feeding the hungry and healing the broken – both seem like godly activities and very Sabbath-worthy things to do…but not to the Pharisees who see only the Sabbath rules being broken.

 

The irony in the story is that the Pharisees are spending their Sabbath day watching Jesus and his disciples like hawks.  I doubt that is the purpose of the day.  I doubt even the Pharisees themselves would admit that such obsessive spying belongs on a Sabbath day.  But, when you reduce that holy time down to tradition then it becomes laden with rules and regulations and the original purpose is lost.  Hungry people stay hungry and broken people stay broken.

 

We had a worship service yesterday to open our theological conference.  It was clear that the planning committee worked very hard in preparation for the service.  They had a full altar table set up in front, complete with paraments and altar furnishings and candles and communion ware.  The worship leaders were dressed in liturgical finery.  They had several musicians including a percussionist, a guitar and a real live organ that someone went to great trouble to bring in and set up.  They had a little half sheet printed with the worship order for the service – very traditional liturgy using Setting #6 of Evangelical Lutheran Worship.  (If you don’t understand what that means, it helps me make my point.)  And they had instructed us all ahead of time to bring our own hymnals for the worship services this week.  Lots of effort went into planning and leading that service.  And they clearly followed all of the rules and regulations of traditional Lutheran worship.

 

The service began.  The pastor to my left forgot to bring her hymnal so she looked on with mine.  Neither of us had ever heard Setting #6 used in worship – that they interrupted the flow of the service to teach us on the spot how to sing the Kyrie hardly helped.  Neither of us could follow the Hymn of Praise though we made a valiant effort.  We both messed up on the psalm.  We seldom turned the pages quickly enough to be ready when the worship leader got there.  It felt to me like a liturgical wrestling match and we lost every round.  And, between the two of us, we have over 40 years of experience leading worship!  The person to my right didn’t bring a hymnal either…he didn’t even try.  He just stood there and left early.

 

And that might be one of the problems with our way of doing the Christian life.  Our Sabbath time, at least our Sabbath worship time, has become so much about the rules and regulations and right way of doing the rites that helping people worship has become a by-product rather than a goal.

 

Meanwhile, I’m thinking at least a few of those 400 pastors are probably a bit discouraged these days and grateful to worship in community with one another.  I can’t help but think that more than a few of them came away still hungry and broken.

 

Let us pray:  Dear Jesus, how did it happen?  How did we who bear your name in the world fall prey to the temptation to act and think like those who got rid of you, or at least tried do?  Forgive us for the boxes we stuff you into, blind to the hunger and brokenness that you would heal.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Monday, January 26th

January 26, 2009

One day, while he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting near by (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem); and the power of the Lord was with him to heal. Just then some men came, carrying a paralyzed man on a bed. They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd in front of Jesus. When he saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” Then the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, “Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” When Jesus perceived their questionings, he answered them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the one who was paralyzed—“I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home.” Immediately he stood up before them, took what he had been lying on, and went to his home, glorifying God. Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen strange things today.” Luke 5:17-26

 

All week this week I’m going to have CHURCH on my mind.  I’m spending the week at our annual theological conference, a gathering of pastors and rostered leaders from throughout Texas and Louisiana.  The conference itself will feature some interesting speakers – this year the topic is stewardship of the earth – but the real guts of this time away for me is the opportunity to talk “shop” with other pastors.  We’ll talk about everything under the sun but mainly we’ll talk about how things are going in our congregations.

 

Unfortunately, for the vast majority of our congregations, at least in our little corner of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, things aren’t looking so great.  It is as simple, and as complex as realizing that congregations are growing smaller and their members are growing older.  Oddly enough, although proving this reality is as easy as glancing inside sanctuaries on Sunday mornings or doing a quick check of the annual statistics, it seems to be very difficult to convince people that this is actually happening, that it is a bad thing that is happening and that faithfulness to our calling means that we need to be doing whatever we can do to turn it around.

 

Denial is an amazingly powerful anesthetic.

 

Hopefully events like the one I am at can help turn us from denial to diagnosis.  Something is clearly out of kilter.  Living things grow and our congregations are dying.  Healthy organisms adapt to their environment and our congregations seem unwilling or unable to adapt well to the changes in ours.  Effective organizations learn from the past and strive toward the future, too many congregations live in the past and don’t give much thought to the future.  In short, the diagnosis says we’re sick and, if we don’t recover, we’ll die.  It might take a while but it will happen.

 

The paralyzed man, on his own, had no chance at getting in to see Dr. Jesus.  The clinic was too busy, the waiting room jammed to the rafters.  Not everyone was there to get well.  As a matter of fact, many were there just to get in the way.  They were like vultures waiting for the slightest provocation to sue Dr. Jesus for malpractice.

 

But the paralyzed man had some great friends.  They literally carried him to the roof of the house, tore off enough tiles to fit their paralyzed friend through the whole, and dropped him at the feet of Jesus.  “Your sins are forgiven,” said Jesus.  That was all it took.  The once paralyzed man took up his bed and walked back out through the crowd.  Strange things indeed happened that day.

 

Who is it that loves their congregation enough to be willing to do absolutely anything to bring it for healing to the feet of Jesus?  Willing even for strange things to happen within its walls?

 

Let us pray:  Gracious Lord, you have gathered us into communities we call congregations.  Some of us as pastors, most of us as everyday people who serve you in a myriad of ways out in the wider world.  We pray for healing – healing of our perspectives and our practices and all that would prevent us from being open and eager to reach out and welcome in those who live around us.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

 

Friday, January 23rd

January 23, 2009

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” Romans 13:1-7

 

The first time I remember becoming politically active was in grade school.  One day, during recess, some of the kids started shouting (I have no idea who started it but I do know it wasn’t me…that time), “Humphrey, Humphrey, he’s our man.  Nixon belongs in the garbage can.”  While still others were shouting, “Nixon, Nixon, he’s our man.  Humphrey belongs in the garbage can.”  I knew we were having fun doing it, I had no idea we were actually creating something that would one day be known as cable news.

 

I frankly don’t remember which side I shouted for.  I would like to think I picked the man based on deep grade school quality political analysis but I probably just cheered for whomever Diane Manning was cheering for.  But I do remember what happened when our teacher lined us up at the door to go back to our classroom.  She wasn’t happy.

 

She brought us into the classroom and she scolded us for being disrespectful.  She told us that both of them were honorable men who had been selected to run for president by many people.  Once the election was over, one of them would be our president.  She was, not that I knew it at the time, teaching us something called “civility.”  She was also teaching us about patriotism and the limits of loyalty.

 

I got home and later that night told my Mom about what happened.  It wasn’t so much about Mrs. Bauch’s lesson in politics I wanted to share but a completely different question.  I told her about the chant we had been yelling and then I asked her whose side I should have been on, Humphrey’s or Nixon’s.  She, in no uncertain terms, told me.

 

It has been quite a week in Washington.  Now 2009 stretches before us and the gears of government will resume their churning.  After thinking about these things this week, reading the things people have sent back to me, watching the commentators on television, listening to the radio, all I have left to add as we head into the weekend is this – remember that the kids are listening.

 

Remember that the kids are listening.

 

They don’t learn civic virtue in civics class, they learn when the adults in their lives show their hearts.  They learn when they overhear adults talking about things they say when they think the kids aren’t listening.  How will kids ever be encouraged to make a positive difference if they never hear their political leaders or the political process being talked about in a respectful manner?  How will they learn to look and think more deeply than sound bites if that isn’t modeled and taught?

 

Although there was clearly much to criticize about the Roman empire, Paul wrote that Christians ought to recognize not only their place in it, but also God’s use of even the most ungodly of regimes for the benefit of the wider community.

 

Let us pray:  Once again, dear Lord, we thank you for the gift of government and the leadership structures which keep us free by helping us organize our common life in ways that help us live together.  We do pray for those in authority and ask that you bless their work.  Enable us all to do our part.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Thursday, January 22nd

January 22, 2009

King Solomon was king over all Israel, and these were his high officials: Azariah son of Zadok was the priest; Elihoreph and Ahijah sons of Shisha were secretaries; Jehoshaphat son of Ahilud was recorder; Benaiah son of Jehoiada was in command of the army; Zadok and Abiathar were priests; Azariah son of Nathan was over the officials; Zabud son of Nathan was priest and king’s friend; Ahishar was in charge of the palace; and Adoniram son of Abda was in charge of the forced labor.  Solomon had twelve officials over all Israel, who provided food for the king and his household; each one had to make provision for one month in the year. 1 Kings 4:1-7

 

Once again I’ll begin by saying that it is difficult to draw direct connections between the biblical monarchy model of government and the modern democracy in the United States.  And no, I’m not suggesting that Barak Obama is God’s chosen one in the same way that 1 Kings tells us Solomon was.  But I am thinking all week about what has happened in our country this week and wondering about the ways that faith fits in.

 

Americans, maybe everyone, but certainly Americans, are prone to fall prey to the “cult of personality.”  We forget that the real world is about human beings using their talents to exchange goods (food they raise and things they make) and services to sustain their lives.  Hollywood is a vehicle for advertising those goods and services.  Celebrities are illusions.  Movies are just movies.  Sports are, at best, entertainment.  We been conditioned to love all of this stuff.  That’s probably not all bad but it does have a tendency to blind us to reality.

 

The inauguration of Barak Obama (and his election, and the next four years of his presidency) are not about him.  He isn’t a new “star” but an elected leader.  He might be the tip of the iceberg but the new regime is much bigger than just him.  It isn’t just President Bush who is out of a job but thousands of other staff and support people, not just in Washington, DC, but all around the country.  I’ve never met President Obama and probably never will, but my gut sense is that he would be the first to tell you that it isn’t about him, nor would he believe that “governing” is something he could do alone.

 

1 Kings tells us that Solomon likewise didn’t govern alone.  The various officials and their responsibilities are listed here in the 4th chapter.  It is their moment in the sun.  But their real work, the real work of governing, had everything to do with the direction and the effectiveness of Solomon’s reign. In the same way, while the administration has changed and thus many positions will change, most of those who work in the federal government will just continue doing the work they have been doing.

 

That is where the problem of blindness steps in – we can focus so intently on the “star” that we ignore, are blind to, or never hear about all of the other shenaningans that happen behind the scenes, done or allowed by people whose names we will never know.  Thus the need for integrity, honesty and diligence at every single level, for every single servant, and the corresponding need for trust, informed interest, and a demand for accountability from the governed.

 

The real point is that government is an aspect of a life shared in community with a broader reach.  Therefore it is about us, only about us, not about “us and them.”  Everyone has a part, plays a role, and matters to the whole.

 

Let us pray:  Dear Lord, we pray today for all of those people whose lives have been affected one way or another by the change in our national leadership.  May those displaced find meaningful work.  May those selected for new positions of leadership do their jobs well.  May we come together as a community to live lives that are full and free, and to address the real issues that diminish lives and deny justice.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Wednesday, January 21st

January 21, 2009

At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”  1 Kings 3:5-9

 

Yesterday the attention of the world turned to the events playing out in Washington, DC.  Peacefully, majestically, liturgically, George Bush returned to life as a private citizen and Barak Obama stepped into a new stage of his life as a public servant.  Sealed with a promise made with his hand upon a Bible, the United States got a brand new president.

 

In yesterday’s devotion I noted that it is difficult to make easy transitions between governmental leadership as found in the Bible and governmental leadership as practiced in a modern democracy.  Certainly the selection process is different – God, through Samuel, picked Saul and then David.  Solomon assumed the throne upon David’s death.  While there are plenty of voices today telling us which candidate God picks today…we don’t come at it from that direction.

 

“Governing” people is also practiced quite differently today.  But similarities remain.  Solomon’s first act as the new king of Israel was to make a diplomatic pact with Egypt by taking one of Pharoah’s daughters as one of Solomon’s wife.  (I’m thinking Michelle wouldn’t put up with that even though the paparazzi would have a field day.)  But we can all trust that President Obama will be making some key telephone calls to key international leaders today and in the days to come.  For the President of the United States, the world is indeed a neighborhood in a way that Solomon couldn’t have imagined.

 

Similar as well is the inherent difficulty of the actual work of government – brokering competing interests, finding a path through the morass of options, constantly selling and spinning and politicking toward a shared vision for the future.  This isn’t easy given the human penchant for wanting our cake and eating it too.

 

In President Obama’s masterful inaugural address yesterday, he spoke about what it is that truly makes a people great and what it is that truly sees a people through the hard times of life – it wasn’t power, prestige or prosperity but a shared set of values like hard work, courage, integrity, compassion and honesty.  In that he demonstrated the link that still remains between leadership in the Bible and leadership in the world today.

 

Under God, leaders still are called to lead.  But leaders cannot lead those who refuse to follow.  And no leader can do for the people what only the people can do for themselves.  Any leader that promises to do for the people what only they can do for themselves is no leader at all but a crass manipulator seeking only personal gain. 

 

Such leadership requires certain values and skills as well and certainly Solomon’s prayer for wisdom tops the list.  Give me, he prayed, a “wise and discerning mind.”  Thus we pray as well for our new President.

 

Let us pray:  Dear Lord, bless and keep us as a nation today, those who lead and those who are led.  Help us to see, in our common daily work, both meaning and purpose.  Help us see beyond our own narrow interests to the good of the whole.  Give each of us wisdom befitting our station and role in life.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Tuesday, January 20th

January 20, 2009

I will sing of loyalty and of justice; to you, O LORD, I will sing. I will study the way that is blameless.  When shall I attain it? I will walk with integrity of heart within my house;  I will not set before my eyes anything that is base.  I hate the work of those who fall away; it shall not cling to me.  Perverseness of heart shall be far from me; I will know nothing of evil.  One who secretly slanders a neighbor I will destroy. A haughty look and an arrogant heart I will not tolerate. I will look with favor on the faithful in the land, so that they may live with me; whoever walks in the way that is blameless shall minister to me. No one who practices deceit shall remain in my house; no one who utters lies shall continue in my presence.  Morning by morning I will destroy all the wicked in the land, cutting off all evildoers from the city of the LORD.” Psalm 101

 

George Washington wisely declined to become king.  That decision was as revolutionary as the war which made the decision possible.  Rather than assuming his throne, President Washington merely took his turn.  Rather than cloaking his authority in God’s special favor (the divine right of kings) or his own genetic superiority to those he ruled (hereditary monarchy), President Washington assumed a position of constitutionally limited power to exercise his role for the sake of those whom he served.  That was revolutionary.

 

Prior to that first presidency, all the colonists had known was the supreme rule of a hereditary monarch or the chaos of powerless representative democracy written into the Articles of Confederation.  The drafting of the constitution, the election of those to serve, and the inauguration of President Washington was truly a leap of the human imagination.

 

Today, Barak Obama becomes the 44th president of the United States.  The experiment continues.  Whether you are a Democrat, a Republican, an Independent or a Yankees fan, you have to admit that today is a day unlike other days.  The crowd which gathers in the Washington Mall today will rewrite the record books.  The first black President to be elected in a country whose embrace of diversity still struggles to fight through the clouds of racism will give a speech that school children will be reading for a long time.  May God protect him and may he do his job well.

 

The Bible passage for this day is Psalm 101.  Tradition says this psalm was a prayer to be included in the elevation of a new king.  If so, we would do well to hear its words this day and to carefully notice what we accept and what we reject – for there is no earthly king in this country of ours.  So we applaud the prayers for loyalty, justice, integrity and wisdom.  Humility is a virtue for the one who would lead us, haughtiness among the worst of vices.

 

But, given that we have no king, we should have little room for a leader who would destroy a neighbor, or who would practice the favoritism of looking with favor only upon the faithful when he is elected to serve the whole.  We want a leader who serves rather than one seeking only to be served.  We want a president who sees beyond “destroying the wicked” or “cutting off evildoers.”  And, given that the awesome power of the United States is intimately tied to the destiny of the human community, we want a president with the kind of vision that sees the “city of the Lord” as the entire cosmos.

 

Let us pray:  Gracious Lord, it is good that you draw your people together into nations and that leadership and power be exercised there for the good of the whole.  Yet in our sin we far too often abuse and misuse our earthly powers, nations fighting as enemies rather than living together as neighbors.  Bless President Barak Obama today as he takes office.  Bless all those in positions of power and public trust – that they might serve their people to the benefit of all people.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Friday, January 16th

January 16, 2009

“Take note of those who do not obey what we say in this letter; have nothing to do with them, so that they may be ashamed. Do not regard them as enemies, but warn them as believers. Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in all ways. The Lord be with all of you.  I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the mark in every letter of mine; it is the way I write. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with all of you.” 2 Thessalonians 3:14-18

 

I’ve been sitting here trying to find a different way to begin reflecting on this closing passage to 2 Thessalonians but I keep coming back to the first words I typed – this is a weird, contradictory, way to end a letter.

 

On the one hand, the writer encourages the readers to be at peace with one another; on the other hand, he invites the practice of shunning – “Take note of those who do not obey what we say in this letter; have nothing to do with them, so that they may be ashamed.”

 

Shunning is punishing someone by ignoring them and pretending they don’t exist. It includes cutting off all meaningful human contact, walking by them as if they are invisible, stopping all conversation as you approach them and returning to a more hushed level of conversation as you walk by.  Shunning virtually guarantees that, whatever the initial charge that invoked the shunning, the rumor mill will crank that charge into something several degrees more damaging.

 

The most famous practitioners of shunning are probably the Amish but, in fact, it is a universal human practice.  It reaches every cafeteria in every school, most visciously practiced in junior high.  It knows no boundaries of age, class or race.  And it all too often happens in church.

 

“Take note of those who do not obey what we say in this letter; have nothing to do with them, so that they may be ashamed. Do not regard them as enemies, but warn them as believers.” – The saving grace in these sentences is the hope and possibility that real conversation might happen in the midst of “warn them as believers” so that repentance and reconciliation might have a fighting chance of survival before the silence settles in.

 

(I don’t believe shunning in helpful in any circumstance whatsoever.  I believe in the value of simple, direct, honest conversation and communication.)

 

We should also note the words – “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the mark in every letter of mine; it is the way I write.”  Given that other passages in the letter don’t sound like Paul writes in other places, there is already big questions about whether or not Paul was actually the writer of 2 Thessalonians.  Does this final “SEE, I’M REALLY THE WRITER!” help or hurt the case?  Does it matter?

 

Yes, it matters, but not why we think.  We modern types object against plagiarism (copying other people’s writings but claiming them as your own) because of intellectual property rights and basic honesty.  We’re OK with pen names but not with pretending or lying.  Pseudonymous writing (writing in someone else’s name) was actually a way of honoring someone in Paul’s day.  That isn’t the problem – the problem is when that later writer puts words and thoughts in the mouths of someone who would never say or believe such a thing.  And that’s why it matters if Paul was the actual writer or someone else writing in Paul’s name; in questions of doctrine or theology, the weightier arguments are Paul’s own.

 

So it is that the second oldest letter in the New Testament ends with words that, when read quickly, seem to wrap things up nicely.  But when considered more closely, are as troublesome as helpful.  All the more reason, as least in my opinion, to use our reason as we listen and learn the lessons of scripture.

 

Let us pray:  Dear Jesus, life in community with others isn’t always easy.  We don’t always do our part, we don’t always get along, we don’t always agree.  We pray that you use such moments to help us grow as we work through all that divides us, toward that place to peace to which you call us.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.